BCE-Astral deal hearing to open May 6 -Canada broadcast regulator

Wed Mar 6, 2013 12:22pm EST

* Revised deal passed Competition Bureau muster on Monday

* Astral says assets BCE would retain worth C$2 bln

By Alastair Sharp

TORONTO, March 6 (Reuters) - Canada's broadcast regulator will open public hearings on May 6 on the proposed C$3 billion ($2.9 billion) acquisition of Astral Media by BCE Inc , the country's largest telecom company, and will focus on whether the revised deal is in the public interest.

The regulator, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), rejected BCE's original takeover offer for Astral, a Quebec-based owner of specialty-TV channels and radio stations, last autumn, saying the deal would have given BCE inordinate influence.

"Given the nature and the size of the proposed transaction, the commission may wish to discuss the concentration of ownership and potential market dominance," the CRTC said in a notice of the May hearing posted on its website on Wednesday.

In its revised bid for Astral, BCE has agreed to divest itself of a swathe of Astral's TV and radio services. Canada's Competition Bureau approved the new bid on Monday.

Astral is BCE's largest content supplier, and BCE has been moving aggressively to secure the content that is distributed via its television and Internet services. In 2011 it bought CTV, the country's largest private broadcaster.

Last year, it teamed up with rival Rogers Communications to buy the owner of the National Hockey League's Toronto Maple Leafs and a stable of other sports assets.

The CRTC said the May hearing in Montreal could also consider what penalties an enlarged BCE might face if the Astral deal is approved and the company then breaches fair trading rules.

Critics of the deal have complained that BCE could use its clout as a content owner to push costs higher across the industry or promote exclusive content over its television and Internet services to poach subscribers.

Astral said in a submission to the CRTC that once the Astral divestitures are complete, BCE would have 23 percent viewing share in the national French-language market and 35.7 percent in English-language programming.

Astral said that the value of the assets BCE would retain would be C$2.08 billion.

The CRTC says its policy is to examine carefully transactions that would lead to one entity controlling between 35 and 45 percent of total audience share, but that it aims to expedite decisions on those that would result in a share of less than 35 percent.